Rigor in Reading


We continually hear the same buzz words in our reading classroom such as rigor, complexity, language and conceptual understanding. We hear it BUT do we really get it?  We think of rigor and complexity as something that older students or proficient readers need BUT this is simply NOT true.  If we wait to provide complexity in syntax and language until students are proficient readers–it is like waiting to teach road rules and signs to a proficient driver.  

Rigor in reading is not simply asking higher order questions, doing a close read or giving more difficult text.  Students acquire language through the four domains of literacy which are listening, speaking, reading and writing. These domains build in complexity and are developmental. Students must first listen to a concept to understand. Once they have heard the concept they must begin making sense out of it through speaking and conversation. This allows students to synthesize the information they have learned and process it into their own ideas. By organizing information and making sense of it, students are building background knowledge of the topic. Once students have background information they are able to make sense of text when they read about the topic. Conversation about what they read deepens their understanding because they continue to synthesize more information together to create connections. Finally, students have enough knowledge to put their thoughts into writing which shows conceptual understanding of the topic. You have probably noticed that these are the ELA standards:

  • Speaking and Listening
  • Language
  • Reading
    • Foundational
    • Informational
    • Literature
  • Writing

Do you notice how they progress in the level of difficulty and mirror how students gain knowledge through the domains of literacy?

Speaking and Listening sets the foundation of understanding. Think of a two year old and the question–WHY!  Why do they continually ask WHY?  They are building their understanding of topics.  We must build this time in our lessons for students.  While teaching a concept–stop frequently and have students talk about the ideas you are sharing. Can they paraphrase or summarize?

The speaking and listening piece goes hand in hand with Language.  As students listen they are learning how words can be put together to make sentences. Think about how powerful a read aloud is for building syntax. Listening to poetry, rhymes and complex text helps children see that words, phrases and sentences can be put together in many ways. You expose them to dialect, punctuation, intonation and syntax by reading aloud.  

Remember, students CANNOT read what they cannot speak. So, when you give them a compound sentence with phrases–does it make them stumble?  Yes, probably because you are exposing them to “language” at a higher level than their conversation.  The more exposure will increase their ability to expect longer sentences, be looking for the where, when and how that author’s add in complex text.

Reading is making meaning of text and the tasks we give students help to create the rigor or complexity for our readers.  We have used center rotations for years but do we really take time to think about the tasks we are giving our students and how they scaffold to the depth of the standard?  If my goal is for third grade students to master context clues in difficult text then I need to think about the skills needed for that task.  Having students practice spelling or read to self may not be the best center rotation to meet that task demand. Some appropriate tasks might include:

  • Reading paragraph task cards with a partner and applying their knowledge of context clues.
  • Reading to self and tagging unknown words and prediction/evidence of meaning for conferencing,
  • Reading a difficult passage with words identified. Students determine word meaning using context clues.

Application of skills is how students learn and extend knowledge. Think about the tasks that we give students and ensure that we are pushing them even working independently. If they need support—give them a partner, technology to help (lingro which can hyperlink all words on a website to a dictionary), a place or person to go for hints but DO NOT lessen the expectation. Continue to give them the rigor.

Scaffolding is the way to provide support such as think aloud, modeling, partners, annotation, graphic organizers and discussion.  Scaffolding helps to level the playing field so all students can access the task you want them to complete. The trick is the balance of knowing when to scaffold and when to pull it away for continued struggle.

Balance is the KEY!

RIGOR and COMPLEXITY in reading is a balancing act. Rigor is obtained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched appropriately with text and task to ensure they are stretching to their maximum with the proper scaffolds in place.  Teachers must really know the text,  reader and the standards because each element must work together.  It is crucial that children learn content through each domain of literacy–listening, speaking, reading and writing. A text just a text—until you pair it with the correct standard, reader and task.  

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